Today in Maritime History — 7 July
1853 — Japan opens its ports to trade with the West after 250 years of isolation.
As is often the case with these damn “liberated” peoples, the Japanese just could not see the bright side in liberation!
To be fair to them, they were pretty resolute in their conviction. They were “yeah, nah, we tried this quarter a millennium ago; doesn’t work for us bruh. We are quite happy just trading with the Dutch and the Chinese.” However, in a play that would be repeated many times since, a dashing young American fella with the grand title of Commodore Matthew Perry (questionable relation to the one-but-oh-so-successful hit wonder actor) turned up at Tokyo Bay with a small squadron of US Navy ships and asked pretty please with sugar on top. He left the Emperor a bunch of gifts (including a telescope so they could really see him coming next time) thus really pissing off the Tokugawa Shogunate, which held the real power, and promised to return next year with an even bigger squadron to receive Japan’s answer.
Suffice to say, Japan saw the writing on the wall and signed the Treaty of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854. This was not a commercial treaty and did not guarantee trade with Japan but left the door slightly ajar for the Harris Treaty of 1858 (or, maybe, the Japanese witnessed the English power of, ahem, persuasion over the Chinese and decided to open their door rather than have it burnt down).
The Americans just wanted more refueling and provisioning ports for their ever-expanding trade and, shock / horror, access to Japan’s famed coal reserves. Instead, by granting access to modern technology to the Japanese, they created the perfect storm for the fall of the Shogunate, the return of the Emperor to absolute power with the Meiji Restoration, and the rise of Japan as the most powerful nation in the Pacific. (At this stage, feel free to play around with dates, countries, and rulers from anywhere in the world and see if it makes a blinding bit of difference.).
As we know, all this ended really well…
PS. I am not a historian, nor do I play one on the internet. This is meant to be a bit of light relief and an encouragement for you to donate to The Mission to Seafarers. If you find yourself salivating over the prospect of dates, annotations, references, footnotes, and further reading, you may want to run away now.